Medical staff massaging babies at an infant care center in Yongquan, in Chongqing municipality, in southwest China. Photo:AFP/STR

China will allow couples to have three children after a census showed its population is rapidly ageing, state media said Monday, further unwinding four decades of strict family planning controls in the world’s most populous nation.

In 2016 China relaxed its “one-child policy” – one of the world’s strictest family planning regulations – allowing couples to have two children as concerns mounted over an aging workforce and economic stagnation.

But annual births have continued to plummet to a record low of 12 million in 2020, Beijing’s National Bureau of Statistics said in May, as the cost of living rises and women increasingly make their own family planning choices.

China’s fertility rate stands at 1.3 – below the level needed to maintain a stable population, the figures revealed.

The slump threatens a demographic crisis which has alarmed President Xi Jinping’s ruling Communist Party, risking a shortage of young workers to drive an economy experts say will have to support hundreds of millions of elderly people by 2050.

A Monday meeting of the party’s powerful Politburo led by Xi announced a further loosening of the state’s control over the size of families.

“To actively respond to the ageing population… a couple can have three children,” state media Xinhua reported. 

The Politburo meeting promised “accompanying support measures” including improving maternity leave, universal childcare and lowering the costs of education, but without giving firm commitments.

Rich kids only?

The announcement was met with widespread ridicule on Chinese social media platform Weibo, tapping into a deep unease with long working hours, skyrocketing house prices and the rising burden to provide for aging relatives.

“For Chinese millennials one couple must support four grandparents as well as three kids? Can the country give a hero’s award to each of them?” read one comment that gained more than 3,000 likes.

Others said the policy could only be taken up by those with money.

“The poor don’t dare have kids, in two more generations there will only be rich people left,” another user commented.

A poll on Weibo shared by Xinhua asking readers their reaction to the news later appeared to have been deleted after more than 25,000 responded that they would not consider having three children.

China’s gender balance has been skewed by decades of the one-child policy, and a traditional social preference for boys which prompted a generation of sex-selective abortions and abandoned baby girls.

And for a younger generation of women with changing priorities amid the unrelenting pressures of urban life in China, there remains a widespread aversion to having children.

“I don’t want to have even a single child,” a 27-year-old single woman from Zhejiang province who gave her name only as Wendy told AFP. “Nobody around me wants to have kids.”

Most experts agree that the policy alone will not reverse China’s declining fertility, though it sends a symbolic message after decades of the one-child limit that was often brutally enforced by forced abortions and sterilizations.

“Most families have a preference for few children now – akin to the rest of Northeast Asia,” said Lauren Johnston, a China economics and demography researcher at SOAS University of London.

“By the time of the next census will there be many third children? Probably few.”

A third of Chinese are forecast to be elderly by 2050, heaping huge pressure on the state to provide pensions and healthcare.

Ye Liu, lecturer in international development at King’s College London, said the new policy was unlikely to incentivize birth rates dramatically.

“The government shifts the responsibility of aging population to individual families without concrete financial and policy commitments.”